Volume 9

Special Visitors to Thames and Mercury Bay

Althea Barker

From the time the Thames Goldfield opened on 1 August 1867, a wide variety of celebrities visited the town. From the world-class acts that performed at the local theatres, to Government representatives – it was not uncommon for the Thames to be included on every major tour schedule. It was even rumoured that the Duke of Edinburgh had visited Thames in 1869, but sadly the truth being that the trip was cancelled at the last minute. The town on that occasion had postponed their annual horse race meeting to coincide with the scheduled April visit of the Duke of Edinburgh. (1) Chief Taipari even had a room specially prepared in his new house should H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh stay overnight at the Thames.(2) Sadly logistics of the travel to Thames ruled against the planned visit and it was cancelled. After months of preparation, the people on the Thames Goldfield had to finally accept that the Duke would not be visiting their famous gold town.

Moving forward sixty years and the town of Thames received visits from three people that would be recalled by Thamesites during the following decades. The people involved were: Zane Grey, Charles Kingsford Smith, and Jean Batten.

Mr Zane Grey

Zane Grey being congratulated on securing a record catch for a broadbill at Mercury Bay. The fish weighed 582 lbs (264 kilos), a world record at the time.
Source:Thames Star, 24 August 1939

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand describes Grey as:

'The wealthy American author and fisherman, Zane Grey first arrived in the Bay of Islands in the 1920s, with an entourage including photographers and cooks. In 1926 he published his adventures in Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, New Zealand.' (3)

The endeavours of Mr Zane Grey were always reported in the Thames Star Newspaper, including on 1 February 1927, when readers were told that Thames launches had been used by some of his connected fishing parties.

In October 1928, Thamesites heard that Mr Zane Grey was coming to New Zealand and was to start his big-game fishing season at nearby Mercury Bay. His manager Mr E C Arlidge confirmed that Grey would arrive in Thames 18 December 1928, before he made his way to Mercury Bay. At noon on the 18th, the train arrived at the Thames Railway Station, where a large number of Thamesites had gathered to welcome Mr Zane Grey. The Mayor Mr W Bongard welcomed Mr Grey:

'He trusted that their stay would pleasant and that they would have good sport. He tendered to them the welcome of the whole district and stated that all felt proud that this district had been singled out for their visit.' (4)

Mr Grey and party were only in Thames for a few hours, but definitely endeared themselves to the town. First they had lunch at the Royal before heading to the shops. They purchased nearly all their camping requirements, including bedding at an assortment of Thames businesses. The group left in the afternoon and enjoyed the trip along the Thames Coast Road. Grey considered:

'the scenery equal to anything of its nature that he has seen anywhere. The views from the Kereta and Manaia hills were especially enchanting, the Island-studded bays making a great appeal as they appeared on this particularly clear day.' (5)

Before the end of the month, Grey sent a special letter to the Thames Star to update Thamesites on his camp site and trip so far.

Thames Star 27 December 1928:

Love For Mercury Bay.
Wonderful Fishing Centre.
Best For Bait.

(Special to Star)
Mercury Bay Dec. 26.
Mr Zane Grey has forwarded the following special letter to the 'Thames Star':-
Camp Pohutukawa,
Great Mercury Island.
This is the prettiest camp site that I ever saw in my life, and to say it is inspiring to me is putting it mildly. My impression of the fishing ground is almost too favourable to trust on such short notice but it vastly excels Camp Brett for reasons which I will explain later. The ground is a central location for both bait and fish. We have been out two days. Captain Mitchell got two mako, 360lb (163 kilo) and 250 lb (113 kilo) respectively, and I got three, 275 lb (125 kilo), 400 lb (181 kilo) and 580lb (263 kilo). The big fellow gave a magnificent exhibition of leaping, and I was nearly two hours fighting him. I will heareafter send you a weekly report, and if this splendid start holds you will find me the happiest of fishermen.
The delightful spot where the Zane Grey deep-sea fishing expedition is making its first headquarters this season.
Source: Auckland Weekly News 27 December 1928 p32, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19281227-32-3

There is another twist to the story regarding Zane Grey's visit. In 1936, Thamesites learnt from the Thames Star (28 July), that one of their own was a close friend of Mr Grey and in fact was employed as his secretary and typist during his then current Australian tour. Miss Turnbull of Parawai had met Grey previously at Whitianga. Described as a truly incredible experience by this lady from Thames:

'To enjoy six months on the eastern Australian Coast amid scenes of ever-changing glamour, would be eagerly sought after by any young person in whose veins flowed the wanderlust, but to spend half a year in such surroundings with as an illustrious person as Zane Grey and his party, would fire any adventurous spirit with enthusiasm.'

During her time with the Grey party, Mr Zane Grey produced a film entitled 'White Dead.' Miss Turnbull returned to Thames with many photographs and items of memorabilia, never to forget the time spent working alongside Mr Grey and his entourage.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith.

Awarded a knighthood in 1932, Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith was the first person to fly from the United States to Australia in 1928. In 1933, Kingsford Smith made a tour around New Zealand and it was at this time the people of Thames waited expectantly for a visit. Thames officials communicated with the organisers of the tour in an attempt to get Thames included in the tour itinerary. Unfortunately a landing was ruled out, and it was agreed instead that a flyover of the world famous monoplane, Southern Cross, would take place on Friday 27 January 1933.

'The Mayor, Mr S Ensor, communicated by telegram with Sir Charles at Rotorua as follows:Citizens regret Thames cannot be included in your itinerary, and would appreciate your circling above Thames during flight from Waihi to Auckland. A favourable reply would afford great pleasure.'To which Sir Charles replied:
'Pleased to fly over Thames approximately 3 o’clock Friday, 27th instant – Kingsford Smith.' (6)

The town was excited at the prospect of a flyover, so the Borough officials quickly put a plan into action about how the town should prepare for the overhead visit! It was decided that Thamesites should gather at the Thames High School grounds where the word ‘Welcome’ would be painted in white 20 foot letters across the turf. The citizens of Thames were asked to gather along with flags, and that businesses should also fly flags where possible. (7)

In the late afternoon on 27th January, Thamesites of all ages gathered not only at the High School, but at all possible vantage points on the hills around the town.

'Shortly before five o’clock the machine was sighted coming from the south-east from the direction of Paeroa, and the news quickly spread. As the big ‘plane, flying low, swept closer into view the majority of residents were afforded their first glimpse of the world famous 'old bus,' as Sir Charles affectionately terms her. (8)

What a spectacular sight it must have been as the ‘Southern Cross’ dipped low over the school grounds before rising sharply to circle over Thames. The three engines roared out as those gathered cheered and waved at the passengers whom could be clearly seen by those on the ground.

'A handkerchief fluttered from the side of the Southern Cross, and with a final dip of the wing Sir Charles soared higher and was away once again across the Gulf in the direction of Auckland.' (9)
Sir Charles Kingsford Smith's famous monoplane Southern Cross makes its first landing in the South Island on the present tour.
Source: Auckland Weekly News 8 March 1933 p34,
Sir George Grey Special Collections,
Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19330308-34-1

With the buzz of the visit still circulating around the town, Mayor S Ensor received a special telegram the following morning:

'Many thanks for beautiful emblems of welcome, which were sincerely appreciated. Charles Kingsford Smith.' (10)

Miss Jean Batten

Miss Jean Batten arrives in triumph:
Auckland girl has made a magnificent
England to New Zealand solo flight.
Source: Auckland Weekly News 21 Oct 1936 p43, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19361021-43-1

Miss Jane Gardner (Jean) Batten, the world renown aviatrix had ties to the town, with relatives having lived in Thames for many years. Her uncle Mr Edgar Rigden Batten was a dentist in the 1910s at London Dental Clinic situated at the corner of Mary and Pollen Streets. This connection to Thames no doubt helped fire Thamesites interest in Miss Batten’s flying achievements during the 1930s. The town was rewarded with a visit on 30 August 1934.

'Miss Jean Batten, the New Zealand aviatrix, arrived in Thames today, and was accorded a welcome on behalf of the citizens by the Mayor, Mr S Ensor.'(11)

A couple of years later in 1936, the town was still following the progress of Miss Batten as she completed a trans-Tasman flight. Mayor Ensor sent a congratulatory telegram on behalf of the people of Thames. A reply was soon received from Miss Batten:

'For your warm message of congratulation which reached me on my arrival at Auckland, I am deeply grateful – Jean Batten.' (12)

Jean had in fact just been the first to conquer the United Kingdom to New Zealand Route. It took Batten 11 days and 45 minutes, she arrived safely at the Mangere Aerodrome in Auckland at 5pm on the 16th August 1936. People around New Zealand contributed to special funds to help Jean cover the costs of the momentous trip. Mr S Ensor, Mayor of Thames opened a subscription list at the Thames Borough Office and the Thames Star Office, so that the people of Thames could contribute to the Jean Batten Testimonial Fund. (13)

It was fitting therefore that a documentary currently being made on Miss Batten has been partly filmed in Thames. Our old Thamesites would have been deeply honoured to have the Thames connection continued.


Over the following decades, other well-known people visited the town, including Olympic Gold Medallist Peter Snell in 1972. The visits of Mr Zane Grey, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, and Miss Jean Batten were without doubt a highlight of the 1920s-1930s.


  1. Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXV, Issue 3590, 20 January 1869, Page 3.
  2. Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXV, Issue 3666, 19 April 1869, Page 4.
  3. Carl Walrond. 'Recreational sea fishing - Big-game fishing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Jul-13
  4. Thames Star, 18 December 1928.
  5. Thames Star, 19 December 1928.
  6. ibid.
  7. Thames Star, 26 January 1933.
  8. Thames Star, 28 January 1933.
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid.
  11. Thames Star, 30 August 1934.
  12. Thames Star, 19 October 1936.
  13. Thames Star, 7 November 1936.


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